Voter apathy muffles Mexican economic unrest

Predictions that Mexico would suffer internal strife as a result of its economic crisis have not come to pass because of widespread political apathy, analysts say.

They attribute Mexicans' behavior to the overwhelming control exercised by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party over the nation's political life. The PRI has been in power for 55 years and has built a formidable political machine that reaches into the country's smallest villages, dispensing favors and funds and squelching dissent.

The party controls the nation's top union organizations and, through nationalizations, a large chunk of the economy. Citizens cannot express their opposition at the ballot box, analysts say, because, as in last year's municipal elections, the PRI is believed to rig the vote when it fears key political losses.

Analysts note that despite the PRI's strength, problems could still occur if the government fails to control the crisis.

''The country is in a lethargic situation,'' said Juan Rodriguez Gonzalez, a spokesman for the General Workers and Peasants Union of Mexico. ''However, the biggest problem now is inflation, which we can't control.''

Mexico is trying to repay an $85 billion foreign debt while controlling an estimated 40 percent unemployment and underemployment rate and slowing last year's 80 percent inflation. Enforcing a tough, IMF-sponsored austerity program, the government of President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado has drastically cut subsidies on basic foods. At the same time, prices for goods and services have skyrocketed and taxes have been increased. But salaries have not kept up with the increases.

The main victim of the crisis has been the Mexican middle class. Upset at the loss of purchasing power, it gave unprecedented victories at the beginning of last year's elections to the conservative opposition National Action Party, before the PRI apparently began rigging the voting.

Despite outbursts of discontent - including a rowdy May Day parade this year - the middle class has not organized against the government. Demonstrations in the nation have been generally small and orderly, involving only groups presenting specific grievances.

In the countryside, distance, poverty, and fatalism appear to have dampened the impact of the crisis. Peasants have always said the government was inept and corrupt, says consultant Rodrigo Medellin of the Analysis, Development, and Management Group, who works with farmers.

Peasants see the crisis as a ''routine situation,'' says Mr. Rodriguez Gonzalez. ''But I think there are many who don't know or grasp the gravity of the situation.''

Fear of the PRI's power is coupled with memories of the 1968 killing by government forces of students during demonstrations. Today, says Jose Luis Hernandez, a leftist union leader, ''if you visit ranches, you will find that at least one person has been assassinated, another jailed, and another persecuted for having complained against the authorities.''

Guerrilla groups, active during the '60s and the '70s, have been virtually dismantled. ''There has not been any guerrilla activity in Mexico in the last three years,'' said an Army colonel who requested anonymity.

Symptomatic of Mexican's apathy are low voter turnout in elections and lack of support for leftist opposition parties. Citizens have become indifferent to political rhetoric because they have heard too much of the same promises.

Another explanation for Mexicans' behavior is individualism and ingrained conservatism. Having enjoyed political stability and reached a certain degree of prosperity since the PRI came to power, Mexicans are unwilling to risk a change in regime. ''As long as we can make ends meet, things will be all right,'' said Odilon Garcia, a technician, reflecting a common feeling among Mexicans. ''But the day we can't, who knows what will happen?''

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